South Chilterns Beekeepers’ Association Visit

We were lucky enough to have the first dry day in weeks for the visit to John Hall’s apiary at Chalkhouse Green Farm, and were able to look inside four of the hives, (Tom, Dick, Bill and Little Weed), all of which had a problem of some sort.

The remaining two hives, (Harry and Ben) were nuclei, made up with two frames and two sealed queen cells each from the hive containing last year’s nucleus, which had grown well. These were made to replace the two hives lost in the winter: one probably too small to survive, which appeared to starve, despite still having fondant; and one which was found mysteriously empty (had they just all moved next door?) As the nuclei had only been made up two weeks previously, we could not open them yet, but did give them some more sugar syrup each in small rapid feeders, as they would have had virtually no food of their own.

Ron began by reminding us that it is not good practice to take a frame out of the centre of the hive to save time, as it’s possible to roll the queen in the process and damage her; always start by taking a frame out at one end and work across the hive, one frame at a time.

Hive 1 (Tom) is a Commercial size hive. We had thought it was queen-less a week before, and were hoping the bees had made some emergency cells from the small larvae that had been there then. They had – with a vengeance; lots of sealed and unsealed cells were present. As there was no queen to produce eggs, the unsealed cells were empty, so there was no choice but to remove these, and most of the sealed cells, leaving just one. A nice-looking one was rejected as favourite because it was built in a space between the bottom of the comb and the frame, and Ron felt that the tip was so close to the wood that the queen would have problems emerging. Ron also advised that the Ashforth feeder that had been keeping them going through the wettest April on record could be removed now. There is a huge field of rape in full flower next to Chalkhouse Green Farm!

Hive 4 (Bill) had been the grumpiest hive, so we weren’t too sorry when it looked as though they might have swarmed at the beginning of May, as there was a single empty queen cell, no brood and hardly any bees at home. Not knowing for sure whether there was a virgin queen in there or not, a few days later we had given them a queen cell frame from the hive containing last year’s nucleus, crossing our fingers that they wouldn’t cast. On the apiary day, the donated queen cell had been torn open, Ron said, either by a mated queen or a virgin. There were fresh queen cells, one unsealed and containing a grub. Ron showed us an extra-long queen cell, which, although it looks like a good specimen, is so long that it might just contain two drones rather than a huge queen! Fortunately, their temper was much improved.

Hive 6 (Little Weed, last year’s nucleus) was also queen-less, which was a shame as she had been very good, building up nicely in her National brood box. Although she was less than a year old the bees were determined to replace her, as they had been producing queen cells prolifically, which we had been gaily taking away to start the two new nuclei, and to help out Hive 4. Perhaps they felt in need of an additional half brood, although they didn’t appear to be short of space. This day there were yet another three unsealed cells and two sealed ones. Although the books tell us to remove the sealed ones when there are unsealed cells present, this time the bees had the good fortune of being looked at by two experts, who came up with a solution that a beginner should never do alone if the cell was the only one. One of the sealed cells was apparently just ready to emerge. Ron described how the queen eats away at the tip from the inside, changing the colour and appearance enough for an expert to tell she was about to emerge. Reg. very delicately pulled the end of the cell off, and we had the enormous pleasure of seeing a virgin queen wriggle out, shake herself and disappear down into the hive. It’s not every day you see a queen emerge before your very eyes! In order to give her the best possible start and reduce risk of damage from competing virgins getting into a fight, Reg. then knocked off all the remaining queen cells, both sealed and unsealed. Ron was at pains to emphasise that this event is definitely NOT to be attempted by a beginner if there was no means to replace the queen if she should be damaged!

Hive 2 (Dick) was the only hive that appeared to have started working properly at last, had a second super just added, and the bees were bringing in nectar. But they had also just started to produce queen cells; a week before we had destroyed the first three unsealed ones, but it didn’t put them off and they had managed to seal one up by the apiary day. Had the bees been reading the books that tell you the queen leaves as soon as a cell is sealed? So the big question was “is the queen still there?” As a beginner, I would not have been in a position to know; we have never spotted a queen yet so not one of them is marked. Fortunately again for the bees, Reg. had little trouble locating her, and kindly performed the wing-clipping and marking ceremony. He regretted letting her go a moment later, when it was decided to carry out an artificial swarm, since we had both a queen and a suitable queen cell, and bees that wanted to swarm; but he caught her again pretty quickly.

The queen stayed in a queen clip on top of the frames for a few minutes while a new box was set up. It happened to be a Commercial, for which we only had foundationed frames, and I’m told that as it was a laying queen, it would be much better to use at least one drawn comb if available.

The new box went into the position of the original hive, with two national frames (without any queen cells) inserted in the middle. We remembered to put the queen back in before replacing the supers on top, Ron said that the extra space below the standard frames might be used for drone comb. Because the Commercial box is made from a National with an eke extension, it appears to be the wrong way round with the hand-holds on the wrong side, which caused some consternation.

But the frames are all lined up the correct way, so the bees should be less confused than we were. The old box was moved off to one side, so that flying bees will all go back to the queen in their original position, and we should have succeeded in separating the brood from the queen and the foraging bees, the prime requirement in achieving an artificial swarm. In a week’s time we have to move it again, to deplete it further of all the bees that have started to fly in the intervening week.

Then we all went back to the farm for an absolutely splendid afternoon tea, and to buy from the honey stall and the collection of donated plants. Ron thanked the hosts, John and Sarah Hall, and announced the sales had made about a hundred pounds for the disabled children’s’ charity, Soundabout. John and Sarah are very grateful to everyone present for their great generosity.

John and I would like to offer our VERY grateful thanks to Reg. and to Ron for a really informative, action-packed meeting, and for once again rescuing the bees from our blunders.

Meryl Toomey

Footnote from John and Sarah Hall

We much enjoyed seeing so many here. We have now added up the contributions in “the tin” which added to plant sales and honey sales came to a grand total of £165! Thank you so much for your generosity. Thank you too Ron and Reg. for sorting out our bees.

A cheque is on its way to Soundabout who will be delighted!

Original post here, many thanks!